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Phases to Pervasive Collaboration

Collaboration is a term that we hear a lot, often as part of the unified communications suite of capabilities. Effective collaboration requires behavioral changes by users and business process changes by the enterprise as a whole.

Defining Collaboration
BusinessDictionary.com defines collaboration as:

  1. General: Cooperative arrangement in which two or more parties (which may or may not have any previous relationship) work jointly towards a common goal.
  2. Knowledge management (KM): Effective method of transferring 'know how' among individuals, therefore critical to creating and sustaining a competitive advantage. Collaboration is a key tenet of KM.
  3. Negotiations: Conflict resolution strategy that uses both assertiveness and cooperation to seek solutions advantageous to all parties. It succeeds usually where the participants' goals are compatible, and the interaction among them is important in attaining those goals."

The general definition is the one most people in our field consider as collaboration. The second and third definitions may also be part of a collaboration effort, although less common. The definition does not specify the technologies to be used to support collaboration; audio, text, spreadsheets, applications, video, and graphics.

There is great deal of competition among vendors to deliver collaboration tools and services (See Cisco vs. Microsoft: The Collaboration Battle Continues). Each of the many vendors have somewhat different approaches to delivering collaboration tools and services as well as somewhat differing definitions of collaboration.

Early Adoption
When collaboration is first considered, the executive suite is an early adopter. In many cases these CXO users have specific cases in mind, not a general application of collaboration tools. Audio collaboration is the easiest to deploy and easiest to convince potential users of its value to business operations (See Better Audio Conferences). Executive sponsorship is also worthwhile since the budget for audio conferencing tools is directed from above in the business hierarchy. The control of audio conferencing may start with a centralized implementation but as time goes on and with the advent of so many tools, the users end up controlling audio conference establishment without any IT support.

Early versions of video conferencing did require video endpoints and usually central IT control and for HD video, specially designed conference rooms. This still exists, however free tools like Skype have made video conferencing much more common. Skype video is user controlled, with no IT support. This trend is accelerating with software-only approaches to video conferencing (See 5 Trends to Watch in Video Collaboration).

Starting to Take Hold
Once an enterprise has passed through the early adoption phase, the enterprise starts to focus on collaboration technologies. The choices are wide ranging, including:

  • Owning the entire solution
  • Using cloud services
  • Implementing a private cloud version
  • Combining cloud and premises-based solutions
  • Using subscription services (these preceded the cloud services into the market)

Whatever the technology choice, the methods for establishing and administering the conference must be simple, straight forward and logical if the enterprise wants to expand the audience of conferencing users. If the conference is one-to-one or a few using their desktop, laptop, tablet or phone then the conference does not need IT nor is central control necessary.

The continued growth of conferencing will depend more on the planning, scheduling, and execution of the actual conference. A conference that seems to not get started on time with an agenda that is not followed discourages participants from joining conferences in the future. Documenting the follow-up to the conference, what was said, actions taken, and decisions made, further enhances the value of the conference.

If the conference is to be for a large group in a conference room, then several other factors arise:

  • Room design
  • Lighting
  • Audio/video quality
  • Connection technologies available

These factors increase the costs but can also deliver improved collaboration vale.

In this case IT should be part of the process because most users will not be competent enough to create the conference room and manage it. This type of conferencing facility should be centrally controlled and scheduled by IT. At this level of adoption, other information begins to appear such as documents, white boards (See Smart Conversations with SMART), data sharing, and graphics.

Transforming Business Process
Collaboration and conferencing cannot become widely adopted without considering the cost. This is when the CXO buy in becomes necessary. As the user population increases, then cost control and the ROI become extremely important. Reducing the IT staff involvements and delivering self-service conferencing and collaboration becomes a way to contain the costs. The inclusion of business processes becomes evident so that these processes can benefit.

Participants now include nearly every employee and may also include customers and business partners. To continue justifying the collaboration tool use requires the addition of analytics and reporting so the tools in use can be improved, modified, or even eliminated if they do not produce the ROI goal.

In the post, Collaboration Exasperation, consultant Guy Clinch states "The collaboration technologies most prominent in enterprise businesses still place unreasonable burdens upon the users." Reducing this burden is necessary if the tools are to become part of the normal business behavior pattern.

Transforming the Business -- Widespread Use
Fostering widespread use demands that the tools produce measurable and sustainable business performance improvement. The internal business processes should be improved to the point where the processes demand fewer resources and are performed more rapidly. Conferencing and collaboration tools should be as used as easily and unconsciously as making a phone call.

At this stage, tool usage changes the way business is conducted. This leads to lower costs, faster delivery of products and services, more efficient business processes, and greater customer satisfaction. This is where the business should be and some have accomplished this end. Many businesses are still in the "starting to take hold" phase and have a long way to go. To get to this point, C-level executives need to have bought into the collaboration implementation early on.

Collaboration Success Is Not Assured
The primary point is the requirement to plan collaboration implementation at the business process level. Think of collaboration at the use case level, not as a pervasive tool like the telephone, and focus on specific types of end users involved. Look for the use pain points and investigate how collaboration tools can reduce or eliminate them. This helps define specific instructional requirements and improved adoption by end users.

Do not assume that collaboration will be used (see Collaboration is Not Automatic). You need to change the user's behavior to really gain value from collaboration not just select and implement the best tools and services.

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